WASHINGTON -- Beginning today, women eligible for Medicare will be covered for some breast cancer examinations. The new benefit is one of several federal health care changes that took effect with the new year.
The new breast cancer coverage provides federal subsidies for a mammogram once every two years for women over age 65. For disabled women who qualify for Medicare, the benefit provides coverage for a single base-line screening for women ages 35 to 39, every two years for those 40 to 49 and annual exams for those 50 to 64.
Last July, Medicare began covering Pap smear tests for cervical cancer. The Pap smear and mammography coverage represent a major shift in Medicare benefits from care for illnesses to efforts to promote the prevention and early detection of illnesses.
The new year brings higher Social Security and other government pension payments, but it also brings higher Social Security tax limits and increased Medicare premiums, deductibles and related expenses.
The roughly 40 million Social Security recipients and another nearly 10 million retired federal civilian and military personnel will receive a 5.4 percent cost of living adjustment fueled, in part, by rising oil prices sparked by the Persian Gulf crisis.
The average monthly Social Security benefit increases from $571 to $602 for an individual and from $970 to $1,022 for a couple. The maximum monthly benefit for a worker retiring this year at age 65 will be $1,022, an increase of $47. The maximum Supplemental Security Income benefit for an aged, disabled or blind person increases from $386 to $407 for an individual and from $579 to $610 for a couple.
As a cost-saving measure, SSI checks were sent out yesterday at the lower benefit rate. Social Security checks for January are scheduled to be mailed Thursday.
Social Security taxes had been applied only on earnings up to $51,300. Under the deficit reduction agreement adopted last fall, the 6.2 percent payroll tax earmarked for Social Security will be levied against earnings up to $53,400; the 1.45 percent payroll tax earmarked for Medicare hospital insurance will be levied on earnings of up to $125,000.
Elderly workers will be able to earn more before losing Social Security benefits. Under the so-called "earnings test," Social Security recipients under age 65 will lose $1 in benefits for every $2 earned over $590 a month, up from $570 last year. Those aged 65 to 69 will lose $1 for every $3 earned above $810 a month, up from $780. There is no earnings test for those 70 and over.
Monthly premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor bills and related care, increase from $28.60 to $29.90. The premiums are deducted from Social Security checks. Part B deductible rises from $75 to $100.